Dysfunction Yamada-Style

Film: My Neighbors the Yamadas
Year: 1999
Director: Isao Takahata (also writer)

Ben’s hypothetical readership: “So, do you only watch East Asian movies?”
Ben: “Apparently.”

Delivering the mighty Ghibli’s first apparent failure—and maybe only, though I haven’t seen 2006’s panned Tales from Earthsea—Isao Takahata makes a series of grievous missteps in his direction of My Neighbors the Yamadas.

The lyrical family comedy is best known for departing from the studio’s signature anime style with its simplistic, sketch-and-watercolor aesthetic. Now, really the very last thing I want to do is rain discouraging criticism on experimentation, even from the established masters—but The Yamadas is not the most encouraging example. The earthy and reduced character of the animation, often called a “comic book” style, comes across as disinterested and lazy more than it does adventurous or even poetic. (That the film was animated by entirely digital means might have something to do with its lack of spirit.) In any case, Takahata’s reach causes him to fumble the sense of life that moved through his earlier works, and meanwhile I can’t even discern what it is that he is reaching after. Eschewing the hallmarks of Ghibli visuals, he gives up a valuable lifeline: the studio’s next-weakest entries—Ponyo and Howl’s Moving Castle come to mind—become deeply watchable despite their muddy story-writing by being freakin’ gorgeous from start to finish.

Unfortunately, issues of inconsistent writing are also present in The Yamadas. The movie tries on a couple of narrative formats, but predominantly presents itself in several series of flipbook-like vignettes, collected by theme under headings like “Male Bonding” and “Marriage Yamada Style.” There are also a few longer passages, the best of which swaps out animation styles inexplicably and has Granny Yamada smooth-talking a barrel-chested biker into becoming a thug for justice. Along the way, the picture has an ugly habit of lapsing into expressionistic dream-metaphors that—even when clever—don’t work because they’re predicated on a false assumption that we already care about this family, and want to see their lives symbolically reiterated in superhero fantasies and wedding-cake bobsledding.

Much like the brief, invention-esque piano compositions that characterize its score, My Neighbors the Yamadas feels like an exercise or a warm-up to a more comprehensive film. It’s curious that Takahata went on apparent hiatus after its production, waiting nearly ten years to embark on his epic swan song. But, whatever he might have needed to do to prepare for the magnificent Princess Kaguya—up to and including serial rhino murder—is cool with me.

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